Since 2007, WBAI’s AfrobeatRadio has brought listeners a distinctive blend of information and entertainment. Created and co-hosted by Wuyi Jacobs and Akena Hammagaadji, its rigorously researched programs offer discussions of social and political issues presented from African perspectives, content particularly rooted in its creators’ wide historical and geographical knowledge of African music.
Now, AfrobeatRadio is ready to expand its programming, launching an internet station, AfrobeatRadio.com.
On February 9, I spoke with Wuyi Jacobs about the new station and about its links to two other Afrobeat information exchange platforms—Afrobeatradio.org, a music database, and Afrobeatjournal.org, a public multi-disciplinary, multi-media repository for grassroots and scholarly cultural exchange.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Diane: First, congratulations, Wuyi, on the launch of the new internet station and welcome to the Pacifica Affiliate Network. My understanding is that the station will be an expansion of the content that you’ve developed on the existing AfrobeatRadio program and that the new station will be supported and will support two other information exchange entities, a music database, Afrobeatradio.org, and an interactive journal, Afrobeatjournal.org.
Wuyi: Yes. The new project that we’re working on will set up a multimedia platform that consists of a radio station and a journal put together.
It’s not really a new project, in the sense that the idea of an internet radio station was what we started out with sometime in 2007. At the time, the environment for internet-based radio stations was really bad—there were questions of technology, how to deploy, the cloud was non-existent. Capital assets were a huge, huge issue; and licenses, contract licenses for music, or the ability to use other people’s licenses or products or content had not been resolved.
Then, through the work, it occurred to us that we had begun to establish a music database, one that was founded by my collection of music and by a collection from Funmi Onanaiye, who had been working in the music industry for a long time. However, because of licensing issues, we couldn’t play this music on the internet.
Actually, we were advised that we could go ahead, because most of the music was African music, and the regulatory body was kind of…“nobody’s going to complain if you play African music.”
But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted African music to get as much copyright as musicians from this part of the world. For what we were doing, we had to respect the rights and dignity of African musicians as well. So we opted to redirect our efforts. We opted to go to a radio station that had already resolved the issue of music licensing in particular and that, in addition, would give us the opportunity to build an audience and to develop the knowledge and the skill set to run a radio station.
So we ended up at WBAI doing a music show…and we’re now back to where we started from. We are trying to create a multimedia space where people of African origin from anywhere in the world and other people as well and everybody in the world can connect with other Africans.
Diane: So let’s take each element then separately, starting with the station. What will the daily programs look like? What do you see as being the structure of the station?
Wuyi: My vision is that it will be an international radio station coming out of New York, in Brooklyn. It will be a station where you could have talk shows, music shows, other kinds of shows, radio drama, for example. You would have producers from all over the world; we’re a digital station and the internet allows us the ability to do that. My hope for it is [also] that the people who are running the station will be much younger because I think younger people are doing quite a good job in the music industry. I think the knowledge of radio is very fundamental to every society, regardless of whatever new technologies are deployed.
Radio represents the core of communication between societies because it is [one of] the earliest forms of mass communication. And I think it’s important that we should find new ways to continue that work.
We have the content that we used within AfrobeatRadio, the archives of the show. Every producer is localized somewhere but the work is available to an internet audience. We haven’t been able to demonstrate that now, but we hope that it’s going to be a platform that will reflect the diversity, the cultural diversity, the geographical diversity, the linguistic diversity of the African diaspora.
And that work requires more hands. There’s only so much you can do without money. Over the past couple of years or so, we’ve been talking among ourselves, with producers from the Pacifica network. So the group of people that will be doing the first shows will be pulled from all the Pacifica producers and some other producers who are working in other networks. I think 2023 will be the programming year, the year that we will start putting together the programming aspect of the station and the journal.
Diane: And can you talk now about the journal, the connection between the station and the journal.
Wuyi: The journal started with the idea of a festival around 2007. At the time I was mostly doing Information Technology work; and, as a consequence of that, I was thinking about how we could do a music festival, using video conferencing technology. There were a lot of things that we thought about at first that we couldn’t put into practice.
But something that we were able to do was to publish a journal called Afrobeatjournal. [This] was a more literary kind of publication. It was a peer-reviewed publication with an attempt to fuse the scholarship environment with the public environment. We thought of ourselves as being dedicated to that kind of work, and we wanted to create a space where African [scholars and] intellectuals, not just from Africa, because we were outside Africa, were able to meet and interact with the public in a language that is accessible to the public. Knowledge was important [to us] and there was a lot the community would benefit from.
I’m from Nigeria. I came here in 1991. One of the first things I learned when I encountered African Americans, Africans in the diaspora and Americans in their own country, was that I knew very little about Americans. My first degree was in English and literature, and my minor was in theater. So I was already exposed to American literature in Nigeria. But, when I came to America, I realized that there’s a difference between theory and book study and reality. I knew very little about America and America knows very little about where I come from, and so that has always informed my approach to my work. We have to inform each other; we have to create a healthy environment where we can share information about each other with each other.
So, initially, the journal was a magazine that we published. We had editors with whom we collaborated. But, because of the nature of the academic environment, that collaboration was not sustainable. What we are doing now is different. It’s no longer a peer-reviewed journal; but it’s a journal that people can subscribe to, have their own accounts, publish materials, their own materials, their own content, and develop their own followership and monetize the work. The journal will also now be the archive for the work of all the producers. All of the producers working on the project will have the same access as people working on the journal. The journal is the mother, at the core of all the projects.
Diane: And how then does all of this connect to the music database?
Wuyi: The music area is in some ways similar to the journal. We wanted to figure out a way to have a healthy collection of African music. We wanted ownership of that music archive. There is so much music that has been created that is either lost or that is not accessible. We have a lot of music that is not available even on You Tube. So we wanted to create an environment where we can provide detail about African music, not just about musicians, but about African music as a whole. There are so many genres of music that people are not aware of. [There are,] for example, Africans producing music in the Caribbean and in this country and on the continent, but it’s not something that is accessible to the public. So we want to be able to create access for the practitioners of music as well as the consumers of music.
But more than that, music has been the thing that has tied us together over the past few centuries, [centuries when] we were transported here, through past experiences of slavery, through the traumatic experiences of the past.
And then what is African music? I don’t want to confine it to African music. You have the expressions of that music in the Caribbean, in Asia, in Europe, in North America; and you have descendants of Africans carrying on the tradition of music. That tradition is the continuity within that tradition.
I grew up in Nigeria, and music was my first encounter with the diaspora, [through] the music that was coming in from outside, soul music coming from the United States, music of the 60s, disco in the 70s and 80s, African-American musicians touring African countries from the 1960s onward,…classical music, jazz, popular music. At the same time, people in the diaspora were listening to music from Africa, so there was always that connection that transcends language, that transcends culture. There’s something there that needs to be experienced, sustained, made available, especially to coming generations as a base for research, as a base for business opportunities.
Diane: I do also want to hear more about your background, in Nigeria, your coming to the United States and your work at WBAI.
Wuyi: I was raised in Nigeria and I took my first degree in Nigeria. I trained as a theatre director, and in my training America was a point of reference. Broadway and Hollywood have a huge impact on a young person’s imagination, especially for someone who wants to be a professional; so I actually came to the United States with the intention of practicing theater.
And so, once I was here, I quickly realized there’s a difference between the actual practice of theater and my studies of theater. I had to adjust to the new reality, so I went back to school. I went to The New School and did a Master’s degree in Urban Policy and Management. My challenge was finding work as a policy analyst in the city. So, I was led to technology work. I went back to school and studied Information Technology, putting computers together, working on building network systems, which was completely out of my scope of what I imagined myself in.
But, sooner or later, I found a niche and that’s what led to Afrobeat. When I started the work at AfrobeatRadio, I was very conscious that I am an African, that I am an outsider as well living in America, and that there are other responsibilities that come with that. I wanted to do work that presented an African perspective, that brought something to the table other than what’s [widely] available; and, so, the initial crew of the show tried to bring an African voice to the table. Those were the hopes we had when we started.
Diane: And were your first experiences in radio at WBAI?
Wuyi: Our first experience with radio was a year at a community college. And then, in 2010, the WBAI opportunity came. At the time, WBAI wanted an African music show, so we auditioned and we were offered an hour and a half on alternate weeks. Dred Scott, [who] alternated with us every week, was very helpful, helping us to understand the aspects of producing a show. We had a very strong idea of the kind of content we wanted to produce, but we didn’t have the technical means, so some of the producers were very helpful in getting us started.
We can’t tell our story without WBAI. It provided us the opportunity and the space to emerge and thrive. My own understanding of life is based on reciprocity. I think there will come a time when we’ll be able to help sustain WBAI because it doesn’t just mean a lot to me but to us as Africans. A lot of Africans on the continent listen to the show and to the radio station.
Diane: You have recently become a member of the Affiliate Network. Do you see Afrobeat radio picking up programs? Are you looking to share programs with other stations?
Wuyi: The answer to that is yes and yes….The amount of work that is involved in running a radio station is not something one should wish on himself. It’s putting together the people and the modalities.
Afrobeat logo and photo of Wuyi Jacobs courtesy of Wuyi Jacobs